Should you get the United Airlines rewards prepaid card?

If you want to earn United miles on purchases but don’t want to open another credit card, the airline is giving you another option — a prepaid card. It’s called the MileagePlus GO Prepaid card and is issued by Republic Bank & Trust Company. It’s an interesting option because it’s extremely rare that prepaid cards earn rewards at all — and rarer for an airline to offer such a product.

But a rare opportunity is not always a good opportunity, and there are a few things to be aware of before you sign up for this card. We’ll even go as far to say that it’s a good option only for a few specific types of consumers.

The basics

The MileagePlus GO card is not a credit card, but a prepaid card. That means you can sign up with no credit check and reload the card with funds via direct deposit (from your paycheck or Social Security benefits); via a transfer from a bank account; or via a cash reload at any Netspend Reload Network location (which includes various supermarkets and discount stores).

Once you’ve loaded your MileagePlus GO card with funds, you can use it in store or online, wherever Visa is accepted. You’ll earn 1 mile for every dollar spent, but you’re capped at earning 2,500 miles per month. Note: You must select the “credit” option on the point-of-sale device to earn miles — transactions where you enter a PIN won’t earn miles. Nor will cash withdrawals.

The fees

The MileagePlus GO card charges the following fees:

  • $85 annual fee
  • Reload fees: The only guaranteed no-cost reload option is direct deposit (as in via a paycheck). If you transfer funds to your account via another financial institution, you may be charged a fee by the originating bank. If you reload your card at a Netspend Reload location, fees vary between $0 and $3.95. You can search the stores near you to see what fees are charged here. As an example, we searched the fees near our office in Austin, Texas, and found that a few locations of our local major grocery chain charged no reload fees. Major chain convenience stores and drugstores tended to charge $3.95. Local markets and convenience stores tended to charge $1.
  • Foreign transaction fee: If you use the card abroad or with a foreign merchant, you’ll be charged 3.5 percent of the transaction amount.

Redeeming rewards

As with airline credit cards, miles you earn will be deposited into your frequent-flier account, where they can be used just like United miles you earned while flying.

How does it compare to the United credit card?

If you’re trying to decide between a United MileagePlus credit card and the MileagePlus GO prepaid card, the table below might help. There are a variety of MileagePlus credit cards to compare, but we chose the one with the annual fee that most closely matches the prepaid card — the MileagePlus Explorer card.

United Airlines prepaid card vs. credit card

MileagePlus Explorer credit cardMileagePlus GO prepaid card
Annual fee$95$85
Rewards2X miles on purchases from United
1X miles on other purchases
1X miles on purchases
Limits on rewardsNone2,500 per month
Travel perksFree first checked bag, priority boarding, 2 United Club passes each yearNone

A good choice?

If the MileagePlus credit card is an option for you, there’s no contest: Go for the credit card. For an annual fee of $10 more, you get travel benefits, bonus miles on United purchases and no monthly cap on miles-earnings.

Perhaps, though, you’re looking into the MileagePlus GO prepaid card because the credit card isn’t an option. Perhaps your credit isn’t good enough to qualify you for a United credit card, maybe you just don’t want a credit card, or maybe you lack enough discipline to own a credit card without going into debt or racking up interest charges. Because you can only use a prepaid card to spend money you already have, it does give you the convenience of plastic without the risk.

If any of those are the case, a frequent United flier may want the prepaid card so they can earn miles toward their next trip. And that’s perfectly valid.

If you do go the prepaid route, do the following to maximize your rewards while minimizing the fees:

  • Hunt for no-reload-fee Netspend locations in your area. Because you’re limited to earning just 2,500 miles per month on the prepaid card and United miles tend to be worth 1.5 cents each, a single $3.95 reload fee a month will take a 10 percent bite out of the value of the rewards you earn. Better yet, reload your card with direct paycheck deposits and avoid fees altogether.
  • Maximize your redemption value. Take the time to learn how to best use your United Miles. Strive for a value of at least 1 cent per point. For example, if a flight is going for $200 in cash and costs 25,000 miles, you’re getting a value of only 0.8 cents per point. However, if you find a $400 flight going for 25,000 miles, you’re getting a much better value of 1.6 cents per point. (Check out our guide on calculating rewards-redemption value.)

The bottom line

Get the prepaid United MileagePlus GO card only if you:

  • Can’t get/don’t want a credit card
  • Fly United frequently enough to be able to use the extra miles you’re earning

If you decide you’d rather have a travel rewards credit card, we suggest seeing which cards you’re prequalified for before applying. The tool below will help you explore your options.

 
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